Union's Mwanga proving to be a weapon off the bench

CHESTER, Pa. — Should Danny Mwanga be a full-time starter or a super sub?

It’s been one of the recurring questions of the Philadelphia Union season, and one for which Union manager Peter Nowak does not have a definitive answer.

But here’s what we do know: while most fans want to see Mwanga play 90 minutes every game, the ultra-talented forward has proved to be a clutch performer when asked to come off the bench.

All five of Mwanga’s goals this season have come in the second half, and three of them have proven to be game-winning or game-tying tallies after he entered as a second-half substitute. The latest of those, an 82nd-minute strike this past Saturday at PPL Park, propelled Philadelphia to a 3-2 victory over Chivas USA.

“I just want to be one of the guys to come off the bench and help the team,” Mwanga told MLSsoccer.com following the win. “That’s what I did.”

Of course, like every player, Mwanga wants to start, and he’s said as much in previous interviews. But the second-year player out of Oregon State also knows the only way to become a consistent starter is to continue to do what he’s done best: score in bundles.

Mwanga currently leads the Union with five goals in just 791 minutes played.

“I’m trying to look at things on the bright side right now,” the striker said. “If I’m coming off the bench, I’m put in a position where the team is relying on me to do good things. Right now, it’s really good for my confidence knowing I’m not playing as much but I’m still scoring goals.”

If the goals keep coming and Mwanga continues to develop as one of the league’s premier young forwards, will he become a 90-minute-a-game player? Or will scoring those clutch, second-half goals only make the 19-year-old even more valuable as a substitute?

In other words, what are Nowak’s plans for Mwanga moving forward?

“I want everybody to start but I only have 11 spots,” Nowak said, adding that a couple of minor injuries is part of the reason why Mwanga has started only seven of the club’s 16 games.

“It’s a physical league,” the Union manager continued. “He’s a kid who wants more but in some capacity it’s going to take a toll. The last thing you want is if it comes to the point where he plays every single game and minute, and then all of a sudden he breaks. And then what?”

Nowak has certainly enjoyed seeing Mwanga use his size, speed and agility to take charge in the offensive third, but he also hopes the youngster manages himself better so he can play a full 90 without getting tired or beat up. Maybe then he will became more of a regular.

“He wants to run to every single ball, wants to get the ball, wants to knock a defender,” Nowak said. “He has to be smarter with his runs, smarter with the ball and know when to take time off.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.